When people talk horses and safety they are usually talking about being kicked. While it's true that being kicked is one of the more dangerous and least pleasant of horse experiences, there are a million other safety risks involved in their care, and many of them are not deliberate on the part of the horse. The truth is that we are one tenth of their weight and size, and sometimes we zig when they zag.
If you ever get the opportunity to examine the teeth of a horse, do so. Understanding how their mouths manage to grind their food almost constantly over thirty plus years is fascinating. But they don't just grind. With the help of their lovely soft and prehensile lips, they grab food and bite it away from it's source. The action of their jaws is extremely powerful. Look where the mandible is attached to the skull. Large muscles and the physics of a large joint ensure that they can eat, and survive, and even enjoy, in a natural world that is stacked against them.
The only bite I have ever received from a horse was from one of our halflingers, Wanda. Wanda was sweet, pretty, and without guile. I was feeding her a carrot, something we do regularly with all our horses. In Wanda's case, I didn't concentrate and neither did she. She sucked up that carrot at the speed of light, and my right index finger with it. She realized her mistake when I howled and she let go immediately. I have had arthritis in the first joint of that finger from that day to this, and I am lucky I didn't lose that first third.
Most bites from horses are accidental, and most involve hand feeding like the example above. It can be done and it can be done safely, but it is easy for safety to wander over into the corner with dangerous. Far more dangerous are incidents where we forget that our relationship with horses is an agreement on their part - not slavery.
My mother tells a story about a beautiful old farm horse her family had when she was a child. The dear mare was loved and trusted by the whole family, and the children (nine of them) could ride her and play around her in complete safety. Unknown to the family, a hired hand was mean to the horse when she was out of their sight. He poked her with the pitchfork, hit her, slapped her, and was nasty in general to her. So she bided her time. She waited until he was putting hay in her manger one evening and reached out and bit his shoulder, making a terrible mess of the muscles and tendons. I've said many times, horses are teenagers. The moral here is never to victimize one less powerful than you, lest they turn out not to be so powerless after all.
Leaning and Throwing Weight Around
For some perspective, Duke, the horse I work with the most, is almost exactly ten times my weight. Sometimes he looks at me with those big brown eyes and Dennis the Menace forelock and simply says no. Let's face it, he doesn't ever actually have to do as I ask. All he has to do is set his feet and he is a giant block of cement that I cannot move. There has to be a reason to move, and an absence of reasons not to move. There is no point in me fighting against him.
I started visiting barns with my brother when I was about thirteen, maybe going on 14. By the time I was sixteen, he was taking me with him to his job mucking out stalls for a horse breeder. That was the age when he let me help. With the wheelbarrow. But in the small barn with the brood mares and the foals, I actually got to take responsibility for Tammy the brood mare, and I would bring her in after her stall was cleaned and take her out beforehand. She was a lovely sweet girl, and she bore beautiful hunter foals to the Irish Warm-blood Stallion. But even Tammy could lean on me just enough to impress on me that she did not want to go out or in. She knew how to use that impressive body weight to get what she wanted and I never misunderstood.
In my early thirties I spent a summer working at a trail riding ranch just outside Angus, Ontario. The owner was a sixty five year old German man with some Machiavellian ideas about women. And once (only once) I saw him punch a horse in anger. But working for him, and working with his beautiful horses, taught me as much about horses as anything I had learned until that point. In this exquisite herd was a four year old appaloosa named JR. JR was utterly trustworthy, and carried my daughter many times. He was a good, safe horse.
And I learned to hate that freaking appaloosa. He was willful and spoiled and had terrible barn manners, and he got me, one way or another, every single day. Okay I have worded that too strongly. He was young and a bit spoiled and had ample distraction to destroy his behaviour. You see the barn was divided into standing stalls, since the horses only came in to be saddled or to have their evening meal (the same way we operate now). But poor JR, on the way to his stall, had to pass the opening from the hay room into the barn. I would get him part way past, and he would simply turn and eat. After a lot of struggle, I would get him part way into the stall, where he would lean on me and take my breath away. Once into the stall, realizing there was food there for him (as if it had never happened before) settled right down and sometimes even apologized, but even then the threat didn't end there. He once shook his head and his skull made contact with mine, almost making me pass out.
Kicking is the one risk around horses that lay people are most worried about. And rightly so I suppose. Even on a small horse, the powerful muscles in that round rump are intimidating at the very least. Sharp hooves that can break bones are well avoided. But fear of a kick is absolutely meaningless if you don't understand the brain that drives it.
For horses, kicking can happen for two reasons. It is either the last resort for a problem that just isn't resolving any other way or it's the knee jerk reaction to an immediate and surprising threat.
Lets address knee jerking first. Remember that horses are prey animals. Even when they are out in our fields, there are threats like coyotes, for example. A lone coyote wouldn't last long against my crew. The coyote would get to close and one of those dinner-plate-sized feet would do him in. But more than one coyote is terrifying, and the horses would have to react quickly and accurately to survive. And this is how horses have evolved to have an immediate kick reflex. In thirty years of working with other peoples horses, and now my own, I have never seen this kick, although I know other horse people who have. One of them was kicked in the head because he moved too quietly. What did I say? Moved too quietly? What the heck am I on about?
The immediate kick is a fear reaction to a surprise. My grandfather used to say always talk to your horses. And by that he meant when you drive them (to stay mentally connected), when you are in front of them (so they see that your words and actions can be trusted), and when you are anywhere around them (so that can hear you and know where you are so you don't surprise them). Its that simple. Make noises the horse can recognize. Run you hand down his body as you walk along it, so he knows where you are. Put very simply, NEVER SURPRISE A (BIG) HORSE.
The other kind of kick is judicious and vilely accurate. Horses can adapt a kick to serve a purpose. A case in point: We have a little dog that we have had for two and a half years. He is a little Red Tick Coonhound that we rescued from Kentucky (for more information contact Jean Stone and Gentle Jake's Coonhound Rescue - they're on the web). Before he got here I doubt Toby had ever seen a horse. To him, they were the biggest freaking raccoons he had ever seen!! He was obsessed with them, barking and attempting to climb the fence out of the back yard whenever he saw them. This is, by the way, typical hunting coonhound behaviour. And then one fateful day, he discovered that he could also dig.
By the time I caught up with him, he was into the field with the horses, in among them, and jumping up and down so that his bark resounded right in the halflinger's ears. What a saw next taught me a great deal about horse behaviour. They never really stop teaching me.
As I watched I saw Willy, the halflinger gelding, turn and get ready to deliver a deadly kick. His partner Wanda was trying to get away. Duke's head was almost touching the ground as he both forced Toby into position and moved Willy away. Suzy, in the meantime, was turning her back toward Toby. I was repeating over and over out loud "don't hurt him, don't hurt him, don't hurt him" when a very clear and definite response echoed in my head. "I'm not going to hurt him, but THIS HAS GOT TO STOP." (How did I hear it? You tell me. This stuff happens with horses).
In slow motion Suzy aimed and delivered a kick that sounded sort of like a knock on wood, but not that loud. The barking stopped immediately and Toby ran like he was running from the devil himself. I gave chase, not knowing how badly he was hurt or where he would end up. His flat out run took him to the gate back into the yard, which was closed, to the workshop, the door of which was also closed, and I found him trying to dig his way into a motorcycle trailer. I picked him up, and carried him into the house, which in itself his a feat as he weighs sixty pounds. When I put him on the living room floor to examine him, I checked all of his teeth, felt his entire skull, the flaps of his cheeks, his nose, all I found was one little tiny swirl of coagulated blood inside one cheek with no obvious source. She hadn't left a mark. Her kick was so accurate and so perfect that she connected with a little dog and didn't leave a mark. I had new and profound respect for Suzy. And so did Toby.
This is only one example of the judicious kick, but it isn't the only one. In five years we have had perhaps four. Always careful, always in response to a problem, and never leaving more than a bruise.
Up in the section about throwing their weight around I told a story about JR, the young appaloosa. Hitting me with his head was an excellent example of incidental contact. Anyone who works with horses can tell you about this. And if they can't, well I guess they don't work as closely with them as I do.
AS I mentioned, Duke is the horse I have worked the most and the closest with in my whole life. This close relationship means that I can touch him anywhere on his body, pick up his feet and clean them, stroke the inside of his "thigh" and put my head next to his and whisper. I can climb underneath him, something I would never do with a thoroughbred or God forbid an arab. He is everything, and I trust him completely, even when we disagree.
This close relationship means that we are often in close quarters with one another. He has stepped on me, bumped into me, grabbed my clothing with his teeth, but he has never created anything more than a momentary hurt, like hitting your knuckle against a door frame.
Suzy Q, on the other hand, is a different story, and now we come to the inspiration for this little novelette. Suzy is warm, affectionate, and absolutely lovely. She runs that little group with love and justice. She adores her humans. But at 17 hands and well over 1500 lbs, Suzy's sheer size is sometimes the cause of unintended contact.
Two weeks ago, I arrived in the barn to feed the horses in the evening. Suzy was right inside the gate that divides the barn into people area and horse area. She was hungry but not aggressive about it. She bumped me with her nose companionably (she can toss you across the barn this way, but doesn't). When I opened the gate and slid in beside her, I noticed there was poop to clean up and I usually do that first. So I slid along her body to the rear to go get the fork. Remember, however, what was in Suzy's mind: FOOD! Thinking that was what came next she started to back her way out of her awkward position between two gates. Right into me. Not realizing I was there, the stepped back with her full weight and landed it squarely on the instep of my right foot.
There are two things I want to mention here. First, I always carry my cell phone in the barn, usually with a blue tooth earpiece that keeps my hands free. When asked why I do this, my answer is "In case I have fallen and I can't get up". Second, we usually wear steel toe footwear around the horses. Except for me. I regularly wear crocs in the barn, and Duke has actually stepped on my toes and done absolutely no harm. Probably something about the springiness of the rubber. So let's say I had a false sense of security. Truthfully, the steel toe rubber boots I usually wear would not have protected me any more, as they are soft rubber at the instep just like the crocs.
Some quality time in the emergency room has assured us all that there are no broken bones. But as with all crush wounds, my foot is sore and will be for a long time.
After all this typing I am not even sure what my point is today. Know your enemy? No horse can ever be my enemy. But a million times I have seen a frightened parent rush a small child away (twenty feet away??) from the back of a horse, as the parent adjacent allows the child to run to the horse from the side and give me a heart attack. And then when we are doing ethnic processions, revelers will run up from behind and try to touch Duke's bum for luck. Even Duke has limits.
As always, I consider my role to re-instill the public with the knowledge lost two generations ago. I think the horse still has a critical role to play in our farming, our transportation and our industry, because of climate change which absolutely DOES exist. Because of societal factors. Whatever. I feel the need to keep this culture alive.